Mama's Gun: Melissa Leo Works Hard for the Money

PopMatters talks to Melissa Leo about her Academy Award nominated work in Frozen River and one of our top performance picks this time around, as well as her appearance in HBO's Treme.

One of the landmark debut films of the last ten years has come from just the kind of director that traditional studio systems are not typically kind and generous to: a neophyte female. Add into the mix that the film's protagonist was in her late forties and her main (female) co-star would be a Native American woman and the main topics would revolve around race and class. These are not the classic elements that necessarily get the green-light as much as they should from film financiers, yet director Courtney Hunt, proving all of the naysayers wrong, came away from the film department of Columbia University with the necessary tools to make a perfectly-rounded, fiercely intelligent and timely independent movie called Frozen River.

The film takes a blunt look at what the reality is like for a poor, struggling single mother in one of the historically-worst economic periods in United States history, where living paycheck to paycheck can often mean mom's a wreck because she doesn't know if there will be a next meal for the kids, let alone where it will come from. In presenting the hardscrabble character of Ray Eddy, played with a diffused electricity by veteran actress Melissa Leo, Hunt thoughtfully and realistically takes into account not only what it's like for a white woman over 40 working in a minimum wage world, but also manages to deftly draw parallels between the financially-insecure world of poor white people to the desperate poverty and discrimination towards the world of Native American culture by introducing the character of Lila (played by Misty Upham), Ray's unlikely sparring and business partner, with whom she shares a stronger bond than almost anybody.

Frozen River is a tangle of knotty issues that never opts for the easy way out, fully exploring gender, race, class, age and patriotism in very new, dangerous ways that are, in general, not present in mainstream film. In the film there is no simple answer, no simplistic images of heroes in white hats or villains dressed in black; only marginalized humans, caught up in bad circumstances, trying violently to survive and hold on in a cruel time that is chewing up poor people left and right, spitting out their bones and leaving them with nothing. The triumph of the movie is not that it wraps everything up in a gorgeous bow or provides the spectator with a happy-go-lucky feeling as they skip out of the theater into their rose-colored middle class world, where there are no problems and mothers are still archaic cookie cutter stereotypes. The triumph lies in the film's ability to uncover subversively feminist cinematic truths that had not yet been uncovered. That three very special, extremely talented women, Hunt, Leo and Upham were responsible for such a feat is just icing on the cake. Leo was kind enough to call me from “out in the country” in June.

So, I would just like to begin by asking about your major inspirations when deciding to become an actress? What was the moment that made you say 'ah-ha! This is it!'?

Well, I was really kind of very small and I swore I really knew what an actor's life could possibly be, working as a four- or five-year-old with Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet circus in New York City. To be gathered with a bunch of other folks pretending and having people come and watch and believing our pretend, it was thrilling to me. Anything that even sort of looked like that, for the next many years, I would do. Eventually, I did find out it was acting and that people could make a living doing that! (laughing)

Courtney Hunt's Frozen River is one of my favorite films in the last few years. I'm a film student, so it is really inspiring to see her success because as I understand it, the path to the success of the film was hard-won, and as we know people are not giving female film makers as much of a fair shake as the men. What concerns did you have, if any, of making a film with so many complex layers with a director with little experience?

I had no concerns. First of all, absolutely, of course, no concerns about her gender. We had made a short, Misty Upham, Courtney Hunt and myself three years before we were able to get together again and make the feature and the short proved that we could work in the arduous conditions and the crew could work in the arduous conditions. We could get what we needed. We knew that we could capture what we needed, in a very 'independent filmmaking' kind of way. We had practiced. There was a tremendous value in that we had spent the time doing that. We had the proof in that short. I think the attractive thing that really makes it a rich story, is the story of the film. The story was so strong that it supersedes anything. In the end, its the story that gathered all of the players together, and by the 'players' I mean the producers that were involved, the crew involved, myself, Misty – we all gathered to get this story in a can. That, for me, is sort of the heart of independent filmmaking and don't bother setting out to make your first film until you've really got a solid story that you want to tell.

I'm from a blue collar, working class background and so often in cinema, I find that the treatment of the hard-working poor feels terribly false. Frozen River certainly captured both the desperate truth for your character and the true-feeling zeitgeist of a failing economy. Have you known a lot of women like Ray Eddy?

I think its a combination of things. I think in the film world, you get that collaborative effect when you're making movies and yeah, I've known people not unlike Ray Eddy. I've lived with people not unlike Ray Eddy, and I've spent a little bit of time in my life not unlike Ray Eddy. Both when I was growing up as a child and as a single mother myself. This goes back to Courtney Hunt, though, because it's an amazing, beautiful story, and she really researched these women. To know them and go after them in the story with a great deal of respect, these were people that she examined very closely. So yeah, it was about my closeness to the subject, and the filmmaker's closeness to the subject, in all the various ways.

Speaking of respect, I think another element of Frozen River that is so revelatory is that it offers a contemporary, nuanced, no-holds barred representation of Native American women onscreen, which is so, so rare. What kind of research did you do on the Mohawk and what did you learn about Native American culture while making the film?

Things I learned about the modern day, present-day, Native American culture, primarily, I did not learn from researching the Mohawk. Courtney had, indeed, formed these relationships within the Mohawk community in upstate New York when we shot the short. Certainly, all of that information informed me, but getting to know Misty, a 100% Blackfeet American Indian, was a revelation to me. The way that Indian people on this continent are still marginalized, how there are government organizations formed to marginalize the people, that it's a long way from even beginning to be addressed, was all really shocking and moving to me. Its a real problem. The problem is now showing up in our ways in the world, the ways we were on our own continent when we first arrived; the things that were put into place that have only been cemented more fully into place over the last few hundred years. Unbelievable...

I think recently Guillermo Arriaga has really been an unsung hero in terms of writing diverse, interesting roles for all kinds of women with Babel, The Burning Plain and of course 21 Grams. In retrospect what was your experience like working with his script and on that blistering film?

I also got to play a woman written by Guillermo Arriaga in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada [directed by Tommy Lee Jones in 2005]. Marianne and the woman in Three Burials, Rachel, were a couple of the most beautifully-drawn women I have ever been asked to play. 21 Grams came first and the clarity of Marianne, in that very complex script telling three people's lives, in an extraordinary way, was just so beautifully, deeply drawn. He's an extraordinary writer, and writers tend to go fairly unsung. Guillermo is absolutely at the top of the list of any writer I have ever learned the language of. From Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to Guillermo Arriaga!

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